The Balkan Crisis: Riot that turned into a national bloodbath: Marcus Tanner traces the fall of Yugoslavia, a nation which was more in need of shake-up than a break-up when the political time-bomb finally exploded at a remote town in August 1990

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IT WAS a hot August day in 1990 when war broke out in Yugoslavia, six months after the first multi-party elections ended Communist rule in Croatia and Slovenia. A radio report said a disturbance had broken out in a dusty town full of Serbs called Knin, high in the mountains of Dalmatia.

I drove from Split to see what the fuss was about. About 10 miles south of Knin, I spotted them in the car headlamps - hundreds of men carrying guns. They were hysterical, yelling it was time to kill or be killed.

In Knin, angry Serbian women gathered at the police station, shouting at officers. Kiosks and shops with Croatia written on them were attacked, and a crowd surrounded a Croatian television car, spat on the windows and threatened to lynch the driver.

No one seemed to know what sparked the riot. Some said it was the new Croatian constitution; others said that workmen from Split had tried to tear down signposts in Serbian Cyrillic.

But this was the beginning of the Yugoslav civil war. Federal Yugoslavia was in need of a shake-up, but there was little talk then of a break- up. In Croatia and Slovenia, people discussed it after dinner. It looked as realistic as independence for Cornwall.

The real political game involved teasing more autonomy from the federal bureaucracy in Belgrade. The Slovenes were the acknowledged experts, but all the republics were after their own steel mills, tourist resorts, airlines and hockey teams.

The elections of 1990 sharpened the debate, but the new people in Ljubljana and Zagreb had the same shopping list of demands as their Communist predecessors - less money for the army, tighter control over the money supply and fewer subsidies for the underdeveloped regions.

A bit of devolution could have solved most of the gripes. It has become standard to speak of 'centuries- old hatreds' between Serbs and Croats now. But you did not hear it then on the streets. And no one in Europe wanted Yugoslavia to break up - the federal premier Ante Markovic was the West's favourite pupil in Eastern Europe.

Mr Markovic, himself a Croat, wanted to meet some Croat and Slovene demands and keep the Yugoslav army happy at the same time. At the helm of Serbia stood Slobodan Milosevic, who wanted a Communist- run centralised Yugoslav state under Serbian domination.

The new Croatian government of Franjo Tudjman, although dominated by ex-Communists, was denounced as the direct successor to the Ustashe, the Fascists who killed thousands of Serbs and Gypsies in concentration camps in Croatia during the Second World War.

Mr Milosevic's tantrums might have remained harmless but for the support he enjoyed among the Yugoslav army top brass. The officers were almost all Serbs and committed to upholding Communist rule.

The Slovenes edged towards independence. They stopped sending delegates to the Yugoslav Communist Party sessions; they stopped sending money to Belgrade. Serbia declared an economic blockade of Slovenia, retaliating against Slovene protests over human rights abuses. The Slovenes retorted with a proclamation of sovereignty, followed by a second proclamation of independence on 24 June 1991. They insisted 'independence' was a way of forcing reforms in Yugoslavia. The army was not being kicked out, but painlessly 'phased out'.

The announcement from Zagreb that Croatia would declare independence on the same day evoked sheer disbelief. With the once profitable tourist industry in collapse, salaries plummeting and with no prospect of creating a convertible Croatian currency, the prospects for independence looked grim. Even the Croatian Serb leaders affected pity. 'Tudjman is a truly tragic figure, I feel sorry for him,' Jovan Raskovic, the Serbian leader in Croatia, told me in Kostajnica, a town later taken by the Serbs.

On 25 June in Ljubljana I watched the new Slovene flag being hoisted as a military band oompahed away. The parliament declared Slovenia independent, with the usual list of qualifications about how this was not going to change anything. That should have been the end of that, but for the foolish decision of Mr Markovic, prodded by the head of the army, General Kadijevic, to send tanks that night to the Slovene border with Austria to 'show the flag' and deal with Slovene customs officials, who were removing Yugoslav border signposts.

By dawn the border crossing with Austria at Sentilj was in flames as Slovene territorials exchanged fire with the army. The Yugoslav air force bombed what they thought was a Slovene barricade of lorries, and killed 10 Turkish lorry drivers by mistake.

In Belgrade the Serbian leadership decided to lose Slovenia in order to concentrate on Croatia. Bosnia at this stage did not even enter the equation. To the fury of Mr Markovic, after only 10 days of fighting the Serbs pushed through a deal brokered by EC mediators between Yugoslavia and the Slovene rebels. Under the deal the Yugoslav army pledged to quit Slovenia with all speed.

The Croats were as dismayed as Mr Markovic. They were left alone clutching their empty declaration of independence to face the fury of the Serbs. Without the Slovene element the Yugoslav army overnight became more distinctly Serbian. In July and August the Serbs sliced through northern Dalmatia, pushing closer to Zagreb. One by one towns fell. In the east, Vukovar was slowly surrounded. In the centre the Serbs were pushing northwards from Pakrac towards the Hungarian border.

The war created an independent Croatian state. Cut off from Belgrade, the Croats introduced a new currency, new passports, and built an army. Territory losses were disastrous, but there were notable military successes.

By December 1991 the war in Croatia reached a standstill. The Croats had lost 30 per cent of their territory, but the Serbs could not form a viable state with their disconnected chunks. The Croatian army at the same time was growing in size and was getting arms, in spite of the UN embargo. Mr Milosevic decided to cut his losses in Croatia and accept international mediation. The peace plan for Croatia brokered by Cyrus Vance in January 1992 settled a force of 14,000 UN peace-keepers in Serb-held parts of Croatia, with a mandate to oversee the withdrawl of the Yugoslav army, disarm local Serb forces, and create conditions for the return of (mainly Croatian) refugees, all 'pending a final political settlement'.

Apart from the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army, none of these goals was achieved. As soon as the Vance plan for Croatia was in place, conflicts in Bosnia erupted. The fighting in Croatia had upset the political balance in the republic, home to 1.4 million Serbs, 700,000 Croats and nearly 2 million Bosnian Muslims.

The dominant Muslims were 'Yugoslav' in a way the Croats and Slovenes never were, but had no intention of embracing a remodelled Yugoslavia shorn of Croats and Slovenes. Under the scheme the Yugoslav army in Croatia retreated to Bosnia.

The big Bosnian cities remained quiet in the Croatian war. But Serb- Croat conflicts had already spilled over the border into smaller towns. The Yugoslav air force bombed the ethnic Croatian town of Listica, killing families as they slept.

The Bosnian government, with its squabbling Serbian, Croatian and Muslim ministers, could not respond to the approaching catastrophe. Croats and Muslims opposed joining a rump Yugoslavia ruled by Mr Milosevic. The Serbs bitterly resisted striking out with Croatia and Slovenia on the road to independence.

As in Slovenia, Bosnia lurched towards independence almost by accident. The Serbs in Bosnia declared a series of 'autonomous provinces' modelled on the Croatian Krajina. The Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, retaliated by calling for a referendum on independence.

The Bosnians were anxious to avoid repeating what the Europeans and Americans inisted were the mistakes of the Croatians - needlessly offending the Serbian community, alienating the Yugoslav army and attempting to arm themselves.

Every effort was made to court the Serbs. Two thirds of potential voters turned out and endorsed independence. But most of the 31 per cent Bosnian Serb community boycotted the poll. More seriously, for two days in March 1992, armed Serbs placed barricades around Sarajevo in a striking demonstration of their willingness to use force to stop Bosnia seceding.

Thousands of Sarajevans turned out to demonstrate against the barricades. From the Holiday Inn, then the headquarters of the Bosnian Serbs, a sniper shot dead a young girl who took part in the protest. She was the first casualty in Sarajevo.

Fortified by the referendum, Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia. Revenge followed within days, in the form of a concerted Serbian land grab in April on eastern Bosnia. In the north-east, a commando unit under the militia leader Zeljko Raznjatovic, nom-de-guerre Arkan, seized Bijeljina, killing civilians who got in the way.

The Yugoslav army battered away at Zvornik, 40 miles downstream, a few days later. At the same time Visegrad, another leg down, fell. Further south, Bosnian Serbs took Foca.

In the south-west of Bosnia the Serbs met their only serious difficulties. Unlike the naive Muslims of Sarajevo, the Bosnian Croats were not convinced that getting arms in defiance of a UN embargo was a mistake, and in the Neretva valley the Serbs came up against well-armed Croatian forces determined to take the local capital, Mostar. After a month the Serbs were forced to pull out.

Strange though this sounds today, when every falling mortar is reported in the Western media, no Western journalist witnessed the first crucial weeks of the Serbian offensive in eastern and northern Bosnia, when hundreds of Muslim towns and villages suffered the worst atrocities.

Between the end of April and July, when Sarajevo airport reopened under United Nations auspices, no reporters were on hand to document what happened to the Muslims of Foca, Visegrad, Bijeljina, Sanski Most, when a great part of the 150,000 people believed to have died in the Bosnian war until now were slaughtered - mostly in their own homes or in the sinister detention centres set up by the new Serbian authorities to contain the huge Muslim population which had fallen into their grasp.

Most reporters fled Sarajevo as the Serbs tightened their grip round the city and a new Yugoslav army commander for the Sarajevo region, General Ratko Mladic, began to bomb the city in earnest. Even the international aid agencies pulled out, after a Red Cross worker was killed in crossfire. The UN presence was scaled down.

It was weeks before the first tales from survivors filtered out of improvised camps set up by the Serbs in disused factories, of daily shootings of prisoners, of bodies carried away on dumper trucks or tipped into the river. Then there were the tortures.

The international public were fairly sceptical, until the first television pictures flew round the world of a skeletal young man gingerly fingering the barbed wire of his detention camp in northern Bosnia.

The Bosnian Serb leaders at first denied the camps existed, then ordered their closure. But hot on the revelation of the existence of the camps came fresh reports of systematic rapes of Muslim women by Bosnian Serb soldiers, although the existence of what were called 'rape camps' was never substantiated.

Even if the Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia sticks, wars in former Yugoslavia are not likely to end. History suggests when one crisis peaks, another pressure point explodes. Not counting the unresolved question of the Croatian Krajina, there remain 2 million Albanians in Serbian Kosovo, 700,000 Albanians in Macedonia, 400,000 Hungarians in northern Serbia and 250,000 Muslims in Serbian Sandzak - all of them clamouring for self-determination and UN peace- keepers in their towns and cities.

The world's attention is going to be concentrated on the fall of Yugoslavia for a lot longer.

Peace or myth, page 19